Gawain Antell knew something was seriously wrong when students started vomiting.
In spring 2019, the paleobiologist — then earning a Ph.D. at the University of Oxford — was working as a teaching assistant on a geological mapping field trip in Scotland when, after returning to the hotel, a handful of undergraduate women grew grievously ill. Antell soon learned that the students hadn’t been drinking enough water, a situation made worse by the unusually warm weather.
Antell was particularly alarmed to discover that the students were deliberately dehydrated. And for one simple reason: They didn’t want to pee while out in the field.
“That’s when it really hit me,” Antell said. No one had taken the time to explain to these students how to do their business in the open, and for some, it was an entirely new experience. Without feeling comfortable enough to ask for a bathroom break, the women had tried to avoid urinating altogether, Antell said.
Antell’s Scotland misadventure is far from a one-off. Scientists at all levels know that everyday bodily needs — from a quick pee break to changing a tampon — can take on unexpected complications when research takes place outside the lab.
As Antell discovered, being ill-prepared for such realities can have serious consequences. But some say a culture of silence reigns over research when it comes to questions of sanitation in the field. And there is evidence that the taboo around toilet care falls heaviest on people who are already marginalized, exposing female and genderqueer researchers to embarrassment and harassment, and can even make people sick.
In the last few years, though, conversations that were once whispered between colleagues are now shared openly at panels and in papers. And a small number of university departments have started to address ways to ensure students and faculty are adequately prepared when nature calls.
After all, “fieldwork can be a super fun and rewarding experience,” said Antell. “Everybody deserves a chance to experience that safely and comfortably.”
Scientific research has a long history of bathroom disparities: NASA helped maintain race segregation by demarking “White” and “Colored” bathrooms well into the 1950s; Palomar Observatory in California forbade women from using their telescopes for years because there was no women’s restroom at the facility; even in the 1980s, the National Park Service and other agencies recommended against women going into the backcountry while on their periods for fear of attracting bears, despite little evidence to back up the idea.
Today, a lack of consideration of bodily needs, as well as assumptions about who signs up for fieldwork, still shapes how — or even if — toilet care in the field is brought up, said Sam Giles, a paleontologist at the University of Birmingham.
In 2019, Giles posted a poll on X (Twitter at the time) asking geoscientists whether they talked with their undergraduates about bathroom breaks in the field. Out of 410 votes, about 44 percent said sanitation was discussed informally, while about 23 percent said it was mentioned in lectures or the student handbook. Around 33 percent responded that they never talked about it.
“No certainly not. This is a University not Kindergarten!” replied John Nudds, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester.
Faculty often assume their students have outdoor experience, said Giles. But while standing up to pee is relatively straightforward, squat peeing isn’t always intuitive, said Sarah Greene, an earth scientist at the University of Birmingham. Pee-shyness is also compounded by the messy reality of potential splatter on clothes, she said.
So much confusion abounds around proper sanitation etiquette in the wild that researchers sometimes turn to books like “How to Shit in the Woods” for advice. “Does anyone know of any useful resources with instruction (even figures!) of how to squat pee or take a dump in the bush?” tweeted Kate Selway, an earth scientist at the University of South Australia, in 2019. “Some students don’t know what to physically do — and I’d rather not have to literally demonstrate.”
Some faculty may be too embarrassed to explain, said Giles. But ignorance and shame can take a toll on those out of the loop.
During an undergraduate trip to Spain, Giles realized that she didn’t know whether it was legal to pee outdoors. Too shy to broach the subject, she limited her drinking and ended up developing a urinary tract infection. The UTI eventually crept into her kidneys, giving Giles recurring kidney infections for years.
Dehydration can contribute towards developing a UTI. The tendency of some undergraduates — especially women — to become dehydrated while on field trips is a well-known phenomenon, said Dawn Sumner, a geobiologist at the University of California, Davis. Dehydration is also a risk for trans people on certain hormone therapies that can act as diuretics.
Ensuring that people know what to do while in the field can help stave off dehydration, or worse, said Giles. But finding that information isn’t always straightforward.
Take Antarctica. Because the environment is so sensitive, Antarctic researchers must carry pee bottles to pack out their waste. But official training on human waste in the field by the U.S. Antarctic Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, “has always been limited or lacking,” said Kathy Welch, a geochemist at University of Colorado, Boulder. (“Participants are trained in proper waste disposal prior to traveling to remote sites,” said an NSF spokesperson.)
Pee funnels are a standard polar tool for people without penises. But a 2019 survey of 95 women in the Australian Antarctic Program revealed that the devices were not automatically handed out to participants. Instead, one survey respondent reported that they received them “through a series of whispers and emails rather than with our survival packs.”
Period care has also been kept hush-hush, with a similar 2022 study concluding that “menstruation is rarely discussed in Antarctic field manuals because the typical expeditioner is assumed to have a non-menstruating body.” Scientists sometimes use reusable menstrual cups to avoid the hassle of packing out used period products at the end of an expedition. But cleaning those menstrual cups requires water, and that means packing extra fuel to melt ice — something that survey respondents said often wasn’t considered by expedition leaders.
Following these surveys, the AAP instituted changes to its field practices, says Kate Kloza, a medical practitioner in the Polar Medicine Unit. Pee funnels, or “stand to pee devices,” are now issued to all expeditioners. Menstrual products are available in first aid kits and at Antarctic medical facilities. And field manuals have been updated to include information on these issues, she said.
“Many of these criticisms are fair,” said Kloza, confirming they were an issue in past seasons. “But they are hopefully now historic problems.”
People working in exposed landscapes must also contend with little privacy. That’s what happened to Greene, who, as a Ph.D. student, worked with an all-male team along the bare shoreline of a lake in Canada. The idea of squatting down to pee was anxiety inducing: “You’re exposing yourself in front of people who are your mentors, and who are going to have a big say over the rest of your career,” she said. It’s “just a scary thing.”
In places with limited privacy, peeing can be weaponized for harassment, said Sumner. That vulnerability was laid bare in the 2020 documentary “Picture a Scientist,” when geologist Jane Willenbring, now at Stanford, alleged that her former adviser repeatedly pelted her with rocks when she went to pee during field seasons in Antarctica. In an attempt to protect herself, Willenbring limited her water intake. She then got multiple UTIs.
For Greene, the breaking point came one day in 2017. The earth scientist was leading undergraduates on a field trip to the southwest of England. And she had to pee.
The toilet at the field site was unexpectedly closed and the area lacked privacy, so Greene decided to hold it until they got back to the school. She wasn’t the only one. Also on the bus was a student with a medical condition that required frequent bathroom breaks. Either too shy or too afraid to ask to pull over, the student wet themselves. Around the same time, Greene received texts from another Birmingham trip where a student had nearly fainted from dehydration.
“That was the moment where I was like, this is still going wrong,” she recalled. “And now it’s my job to fix it.”
That field trip was the beginning of a reckoning at the University of Birmingham’s geoscience department. Greene would go on to write a document with Giles, other staff, and Ph.D. students detailing the issue. (“The first go was a bit of a rant,” she said.)
The primer is now cited by about a dozen papers and internal documents identifying bathroom breaks as a diversity issue in research — one that researchers say falls hardest on cisgender women, genderqueer people, people with medical conditions, and those from lower social economic backgrounds. The solutions are surprisingly simple. Some departments — like the geoscience department at the University of Birmingham — have taken to integrating the “pee talk” into lectures ahead of field trips. Faculty are also encouraged to carry period packs with tampons and pads and rent buses with toilets.
Giles is taking things a step further. In remote bathroom-free areas, she brings a “loo tent” — a simple cloth screen for privacy complete with a bucket — and introduces it to students early on during field expeditions. It’s the kind of thing that Giles didn’t have access to during her undergraduate years, but she finds it makes a world of difference.
“It’s really noticeable that if you don’t mention it to the students, or you kind of make a joke about it, they’ll feel nervous using it,” she said. But by explaining how it works and then using it herself, Giles has found that “you have a queue of students lining up to use it.”
The moves are largely a bid to prevent students from dangerous or uncomfortable situations — such as growing dehydrated or bleeding through clothing. Privacy issues can also be overcome with some simple adjustments. For instance, anthropologist Kathinka Frøystad said that wearing skirts and other loose clothing can help maintain a sense of privacy, though that option depends on the fieldwork type as well as the local climate. Pee funnels are also an option if researchers want to keep their pants on — but require practice to use, said Sumner.
While the conversation around field sanitation is growing, there’s still more to be done, said Mia Wroe, a geographer at the University of Cambridge. Wroe was a student at the University of Birmingham when the primer was put in place, which, she said, was “a good start.” But for practical information — like how to handle a period in the field — Wroe had to turn to YouTube and other information online.
Ignorance can cut both ways. At Oxford, Antell — now at UC Riverside — tried to get senior staff to include tampons and pads in the department’s first aid kit. Antell said the staff member refused on the premise that students would return used hygiene products. “I — as a junior person — had to talk to a very senior man and say that in all the times in my life I’ve lent someone a tampon, no one has ever returned it to me,” Antell said.
Misunderstandings around periods can affect institutional practices. The Australian Antarctic Program implemented a system for researchers to access menstrual products before heading out into the field, at a time when period products were not included as a standard component of first aid kits in Antarctica, while condoms — another personal health item — were. But in 2022, critics pointed out that the program wasn’t well advertised and limited access to a single clinic.
The AAP has since taken numerous steps to expand access, says Kloza, including offering reimbursement for menstrual products. Still, Wroe takes such disparities to heart. As an undergraduate, Wroe felt self-conscious discussing her bodily functions with the world. Then, she saw other students air their grievances to faculty about a bathroom-less field trip that left students with periods scrambling. So Wroe wrote a manifesto about period care in the field. Now “I don’t give a shit,” she said. “I’m telling everyone about my period if I need to.”
Freda Kreier is a freelance journalist based out of Washington, D.C. Her work focuses on science and the natural world.